Monday, January 23, 2006

Weird: science.

I come from an academic mixed marriage: my mother's a language professor, my father's a chemist. For most of my life, I was quite clear that I came down on the Arts and Letters side of the divide; the Sciences were dull and frustrating, at least as I experienced them in school. Anyway I understood a lot more about what my mother did for a living than I did my father; whether this had to do with the fact that my mother simply talked about her work and made it a part of our everyday lives much more than my dad did (for years I was convinced that his job primarily consisted of going to lunch), or whether it came down to my innate predisposition, I don't know. Anyway I loved reading, and math bored me, so that seemed to settle that. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it had to involve writing. When I decided that theatre was the path for me, my identity seemed clearer still. Humanities. Words.

Over the last few years, I've been slowly (very slowly) shifting my focus and interests, to the point where I'm looking to go back to school (again), for to become a psychologist. In order to get into one of the programs I'd be applying for, I needed certain core undergraduate-level psychology courses that I hadn't taken the first go-round through B.A. land. So off I went. Imagine my surprise upon being informed that psychology was considered a science, and as such, we would be learning certain basic principles, studying human biochemistry, and taking part in lab experiments, among other things that I had never thought I'd have any truck with. Imagine my further surprise to realize that I was actually getting into this aspect of the field (to me it's truly a hybrid profession, neither fish nor fowl, and you can approach it as a counselor, a bodyworker, a socio-political advocate, a hardcore scientist, a philosopher, or even an artist...or any combination of those and more). Okay, statistics are not my thing, but knowing how to prepare and run an experiment is really useful and enlightening. And understanding the body's influence on mind (if you can truly even distinguish the two) is something I'm finding profoundly satisfying.

And it occurs to me, now: it's just barely possible that I might have had a less negative impression of science(s) as a kid if I had just had decent classes. After all, before I started studying the stuff (or so-called) at school, I was avidly reading "Cosmos" and trying to learn to identify all the birds I saw. I even had a little chemistry set when I was eight. My interest in the subject waned rapidly once I got beyond "hey, pretty colors!," but still, it was there for a time.

And then came biology, with its frogs and formaldehyde. ("This is froggy's last day, so be nice to him," quoth my sophomore teacher, holding up a hapless, squirming amphibian by the haunch before dropping it unceremoniously back into the tank). My question, then and now: isn't biology about the study of life? Wouldn't it make more sense to learn about the way animals live before we open them up and poke about their insides? And chemistry (as taught by one jerk and one deaf lunatic), and all the maths. Oh, god, the maths. I know now that there are people who "get" math in a way that I don't and probably never will. All the same, if I'd at least had some idea of what on God's green earth I was supposed to do with this...well. All I knew was that I was dutifully trying to replicate formulas that someone else had solved/done before me, and that was it. You did it correctly or not, and that was all. I hated it.

Rereading Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys," a memory of his dire time in an English boarding school at the turn of the last century, I was struck that for him, science represented both unconventionality and freedom. It was a respite from the rote, insanely dull drills of Latin and history; it meant going out into the field or the woods or the waters and looking at plants and animals. Touching and exploring and asking questions. Seeing for himself. Unlike the rest of his education, it must have seemed real to him, or realer, anyway. Ironically, this was at least partly because at the time, science wasn't considered terribly important. Anyway, you didn't need it to pass your exams, and that was what really mattered.

Ultimately I think almost any subject can be dull or interesting, alive or dead, depending on not just who's teaching it (yes, fun, sympathetic teachers always help), but the philosophy behind the teaching. For me, science was dead because I never understood why I was learning about any of this. Had I had a better grasp that at bottom it was simply about "finding out how the world works," I probably would have been a lot more interested. The fact that I *did* get that English was a way of finding out how the world works might have been because I had better teachers in that subject, or it might just have been because I already had understood the magic of books from a very young age, and even the dullest class wasn't going to take that away from me.

1 comment:

fastlad said...

"This is froggy's last day, so be nice to him."

Such, such were the joys. What a marvelous, lucid post.